How To Develop a Theory of Change

How To Develop a Theory of Change

Updated: Jun 3


Since you are currently reading this blog post, I assume you already know what a Theory of Change (ToC) is. If not, you can read all about the background to ToCs here.

In this article I will share practical steps and tips for designing a TOC for your interventions. Please note that there is no ‘one way’ to go about this and the contents of this blog post are based on my own experience of what worked well (and not so well) for me in the past. I will also refer to other articles that have been published on the matter.

I find it is best if the TOC is developed in a participatory and collaborative way. That is, with the involvement of all the stakeholders and not just the programme staff (or even worse one person!) sitting in an office to draft a TOC. Though to be honest, some evaluators do not advocate a completely participatory approach (Dubow and Litzer, 2019). These authors believe that too much input from staff and management introduces too many ‘disparate perspectives’ that can stifle the momentum of developing the ToC.

I believe differently. In my opinion, if the ToC is to be owned (and more importantly used), there should be full participation of all stakeholders at critical junctures. These include, but are not limited to beneficiaries of the initiative, the programme implementers and other persons who possess expertise or knowledge in the area that the TOC will address.


Indeed, with wide stakeholder engagement you will have to contend with divergent views and perspectives. However, it comes down to skill of the facilitator to guide the development of the ToC towards one of true consensus that represents the varying perspectives of persons who were consulted. Speaking of facilitators, this brings me to the next point.

The process to develop a TOC should ideally involve a facilitated group discussion at some point with the above-mentioned stakeholders. In other words, relying solely on the e-mailing documents back and forth and Skype calls throughout the process is an absolute no-no.

My recommendation is to organise a whole day retreat (s) somewhere out of the office to get away from distractions such as ringing telephones and to get the ‘creative juices’ flowing.

Once you have all the stakeholders holed up in a secluded cabin somewhere (hopefully not against their will) please define what a TOC is before beginning the development process. This may be seem like a simple thing, but it is crucial that everyone has a common understanding of a TOC before any brainstorming begins (for example, some people may think a TOC is the same as a log frame).

In this blog post I mainly focus on the steps that can be used to develop the ToC in the group session. Production of the final ToC involves much more than just the facilitated discussions.

For example, when I supported The Salvation Army (TSA) Netherlands and Switzerland to develop their ToC, the initial stages consisted of one-on-one interviews with the management and programme staff. This was to get an understanding of how they defined a ToC, their vision of the ideal future with respect to ‘all persons living in dignity’ and what actions (interventions) they think will bring about this ideal future.

Usually these key informants will use their Strategic Plan/Mission Statement/Vision (or some other version of a strategic document) to kick start the thinking process. They would give me the philosophy of the founders and the mandate of the organisation. In the case of TSA it was Catherine and William Booth’s vision to alleviate poverty by addressing person's physical and spiritual needs.

It goes without saying that I read TSA’s strategic and programmatic documents in conjunction with the interviews then facilitate several rounds of group discussions. All the content was then pulled content together for the draft ToC. This document would then be circulated via email for more rounds of revision and of course quite some time was spent on getting the visualisation just right.

DuBow and Litzler (2019) wrote an interesting article that documents their process for developing the ToC. However, for this blog post I will be using ‘Project Superwoman’ as example as it is a free and open source publication. This way readers who want a deeper understanding of the application to the TOC to a real project, can access that publication in its entirety.

Without further ado, the steps to developing the TOC during a group setting are as follows.

Step 1: Identify a long-term goal

In this step the group discuss, agree on and get specific about the long term goal(s). It is important that there is consensus among all the participants on a good, clear outcome. Agreement on a clear goal is vital as the entire TOC hinges on this long term goal. You can have more than one goal but I recommend no more than three (I learnt this the hard way when a TOC I developed became unwieldy with too many goals).

For Project Superwoman the Goal was:

Step 2: Conduct ‘backward mapping’ to identify the preconditions necessary to achieve that goal

Once this goal has been identified the participants then ask themselves what preconditions need to exist in order for this goal to be achieved. In the case of Project Superwoman, three preconditions were identified.

From the participants’ experience and research, they figure that in order for the women to have ‘Long Term Employment’ survivors need to attain coping skills, survivors need to have marketable skills in non-traditional jobs and survivors know and have appropriate workplace behaviour.

From the participants’ experience and research, they figure that in order for the women to have ‘Long Term Employment’ survivors need to attain coping skills, survivors need to have marketable skills in non-traditional jobs and survivors know and have appropriate workplace behaviour.

Diagram reproduced from ActKnowledge and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change (2004) . 'Guided Example: Project Superwoman

This process of identifying preconditions (outcomes) continues until all the possible pathways to the ultimate change (the goal) have been identified. This is called the ‘outcomes pathway’ and the logical flow between the shorter-term, intermediate and longer term outcomes are connected by causal links.

Diagram reproduced from ActKnowledge and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change (2004) . 'Guided Example: Project Superwoman

During this step the participants will also clarify the assumptions and justifications for the preconditions.

For the Goal: ‘Long Term Employment at Liveable Wages for Domestic Violence Survivors’ assumptions were:


Assumption A: Jobs in non-traditional areas of work for women, such as electrical, plumbing, carpentry and building management are more likely to pay liveable wages and are more likely to be unionized and provide job security. Some of these jobs also provide a ladder of upward mobility, from apprenticeship to master, giving entry-level employees a career future.

Assumption B: Although this assumption was NOT specified in the ‘Project Superwoman’, I think that another assumption could be that employers are willing to hire women in jobs that are traditionally carried out by men. That is, employers (and their customers) are comfortable with an electrician who is a woman.

For the precondition/outcome ‘Survivors attain coping skills’ the assumption was:

Assumption C: Women who have been abused need more than just skills, they need to be emotionally ready for work as well. This s assumption clarifies why and how the Superwoman project was different from traditional job-training programmes, i.e., the special psychological supports needed for the initiative’s clients.

For the precondition/outcome ‘Survivors have marketable skills in non-traditional jobs.

Assumption D: Women can learn non-traditional skills and compete in the marketplace

The assumptions are captured in the TOC below by the letters of the alphabet.

Diagram is reproduced from ActKnowledge and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change (2004) . 'Guided Example: Project Superwoman


The process of the backwards mapping and connecting the outcomes (with the underlying assumptions) continues until there is a framework that tells the entire story.

Be aware though that not every connection has the same weight within the outcomes pathway. Yet some ToCs present all the elements equally with the same size boxes and same thickness of the arrows. This implies that no outcome is more relevant than the other.

In reality, some outcomes are more critical than others. For example, a change in the attitude of employers towards hiring women is more critical to achievement of long term employment for women than an outcome of women attending peer-to-peer counselling.

Other outcomes may be easier to achieve in the shorter term (for example, women starting their own business may be easier to achieve than changing the cultural mindset towards economically emancipated women in a patriarchal society).

This differentiation on the significance of the outcomes may be done by varying the thickness of the arrows/ lines connecting the outcomes and/or varying the colour, shape and size of the boxes.

Reproduced from Dhillon and Vaca (2018)

Step 3: Identify the interventions

With the change framework now visually represented (with all the connections between the outcomes/preconditions identified), the group should now focus on the interventions. Interventions are the activities that the programme will engage in to bring about the change.

The interventions explain what the stakeholders are going to do to achieve their desired outcomes. In Project Superwoman the following interventions were identified.

See the interventions visually represented in the TOC below.

Diagram is reproduced from ActKnowledge and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change (2004) . 'Guided Example: Project Superwoman

Based on the first intervention, an outreach campaign is necessary to publicise the programme for the women to hear about it and the second intervention is a screening to ensure that the right target population (women who are the victims of violence) are the ones to actually be allowed into the programme.

Step 4: Develop indicators for each outcome/precondition in the TOC

This step focuses on how to measure the implementation and effectiveness of the initiative. Please see my other articles on how to develop indicators.

Step 5: Writing the Narrative

The final step is the drafting of the text that accompanies the visual part of the TOC. This narrative is a description of the programme. A good narrative sums up the initiative’s story. It starts from the beginning with the background and goals explaining why they are important and how the initiative’s work achieves the goals.

It is not expected that a final TOC is produced at the end of the workshop. What usually happens is that the facilitator of the group discussion takes photos of all the sticky notes and chart papers from the day.

These photos are then used to inform the content of the final TOC. MS Power Point, MS Word, MS Excel or a special software can be used to give the TOC its final shape and look. It is at this stage that the e-mailing and Skyping make take place to expand and edit the TOC before its finalisation.

Once you have developed your TOC you could use the following criteria to evaluate it:

  • The TOC should be plausible: Does common sense or prior evidence suggests that the activities, if implemented, will lead to desired results?

  • The TOC should be agreed upon:Is there reasonable agreement among the stakeholders with the theory of change as postulated?

  • The TOC should be embedded: Is the theory of change embedded in a broader social and economic context, where other factors and risks likely to influence the desired results are identified?

  • The TOC should be testable/evaluable: Is the theory of change specific enough to measure its assumptions in credible and useful ways?

  • The TOC should be feasible: Are the set of interventions feasible to implement given the available resources?

So the Recap...

Lastly, as I am a big fan of simplicity and being clear, I advise you to not ‘over-complicate’ your TOC. Some persons want to include every possible change, every aspect of the broader socio-economic context, 50 assumptions and 100 indicators for the TOC. This is not necessary. Nor should you get carried away with the fancy design elements (I have seen TOCs shaped like houses and birds, see this article for inspiration) at the expense of a robust TOC.

The TOC should be easily understood at a glance and more than all it should make logical sense. Additionally, your TOC is not a static document and should be reviewed periodically for continued relevance throughout the implementation of your programme.

Good luck with developing your TOC and know that there is no specified timeframe for the development of a ToC. One organisation spent a decade developing their ToC! ( Dubow and Litzler, 2019).

Furthermore, a ToC is one of those things where I believe the journey is just as important as the destination. The process of developing the ToC forces you to clarify some critical assumptions about your organisation and your interventions, as well as gain clarity on why you work the way you do. For the Salvation Army it was a good experience for persons to reflect on how they approach development work as a faith based organisation and why addressing spiritual needs are one of the ways to bring about change. Developing the ToC was just as valuable as the final product itself.

I leave you with photos from sessions I have facilitated with the ARcil Foundation in Portugal. This is to give you a sense of the look and feel of a TOC building session in action.

If you found my article useful, please remember to 'Like', share on social media and hit the 'Follow' button on Linkedin to never miss an article. Additionally, I would love to improve the content of this blog by incorporating YOUR experiences with developing a ToC for an organisation. What worked well and not so well for you?

Please give input via the 'Comments' section below.

Useful Comments and Discussions can also be found on my LinkedIn post. Scroll down to the comment session to read the threads.

References

ActKnowledge and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change (2004) . 'Guided Example: Project Superwoman

Anderson, A.C. Kubisch & J.P. Connell (Eds) New Approaches to Evaluating Community Initiatives. Volume 2: Theory, measurement and analysis (Queenstown, The Aspen Institute).

Connell, J.P. & Kubisch, A.C. (1998) Applying a theory of change approach to the evaluation of comprehensive community initiatives: progress, prospects and problems in: K. Fulbright

Dhillon, Lovely and Sara Vaca (2018). Refining Theories of Change. Journal of MultiDisciplinary Evaluation (JMDE) Volume 14, Issue 30

Dubow, Wendy M. & Elizabeth Litzler (2019). American Journal of Evaluation, Volume.40, Number 2

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